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France profonde: Rural idyll or backwater hell?

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France profonde: Rural idyll or backwater hell?
Life in Rural France: Is it heaven or hell or just what you make of it? Photo: Shutterstock
17:46 CEST+02:00
Does life in rural France offer the peace and quiet that you've always dreamed about or is it a quick route to loneliness and isolation? Annecy-based writer Amaryllis Barton takes a closer look.

The French countryside, with its rolling hills, dramatic alpine scenery, swathes of green forest and kilometres of rich vineyard country, is one of the most popular destinations for expats and holidaymakers alike.

If you live in the UK, you've definitely spent the morning commute thinking about it. If you work in Paris, chances are you catch the first train to the countryside for your August holidays.

And if you're an expat, you're probably reading this from a renovated farmhouse in "Dordogneshire".

Shutting up shop in the UK and relocating to la France profonde is part of a dream cultivated by programmes such as A Place In The Sun or books like Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence - but is France's countryside really the place where dreams come true? Plummeting house prices, a lack of job opportunities, and abandoned villages (Charles Aznavour last week suggested they should be used to house refugees) are a new reality for many campagnards in modern France.

Yet for many expats there seems to be no question about. A 14-bedroom chateau in the Midi-Pyrénées with a pool, stable and garages can come in at just over €500,000 (leggettfrance.com).

With prices like these, it's difficult for retiring Brits, or even successful young couples, looking to live out a fairytale existence in the countryside, to resist. And the figures show just that: the Anglo invasion in some areas means that 70 percent of second homes belong to UK expats.

This cheap property comes at a price in other respects however. Expat hotspots are often located in some of France's poorest departments: Lot-et-Garonne, Dordogne, Haute-Vienne and Creuse.

Joanna Leggett, a director at Leggett estate agents, one of France's leading agencies, warns that "the market is rock bottom… since 2008 property prices have fallen by 25 percent and have not started going back up". It's statements like these that drive fear into the hearts of even the most fervent Francophiles. But it does mean there are bargains out there.

SEE ALSO: Expat tribes in France - which one do you belong to?

Along with making the mortgage more difficult to pay off, and increasing the risk of negative equity, the charming French farmhouse of your dreams will have to pay its fair share of property taxes and community charges, that many expats are unaware of.

There's also the fact that properties in remote locations tend not to be on mains gas and electricity supplies so a knowledge of plumbing will be more handy than an encyclopaedic knowledge of the nearby vineyards. 

Equally, the tendency for expats to live in claustrophobic rural expat communities, with many groups setting up English pubs and even fish and chip nights, means that the escape to the country often doesn't herald the tranquil existence expats desire. Only this month, two expat families' ten year feud came to a head in "la guerre des rosbifs", a salutary lesson to anyone who thinks they can escape neighbourly disputes by hightailing to France.

Despite all that, the British seem to have voted with their feet in deciding that the French dream is worth the closed village centres and, occasionally, closed communities they encounter. Online expat forums abound with Brits keen to point out the many traumas of their move to l'Héxagone - but they are adamant they won't be coming back to the UK anytime soon.

But the French have a rather different perspective on their countryside.

When we asked a number French people whether they would advise a UK expat to make the move to the countryside, only a minority of respondents gave a positive response.

A lack of amenities, such as shops and restaurants was seen as the biggest downside to country life. Many city dwellers are shocked to discover that not only are shops out in the country closed on Sundays, but, often Mondays, and, if you're particularly unlucky, on Tuesdays too. Although the French respondents believed that the Brits weren't wrong in thinking that France still had its rural idylls, they didn't think that life in the countryside would improve for the better any time soon.

SEE ALSO: Biggest expat regrets about moving to France

"There are many downsides to living out in the country… but everywhere people are coming together to try and improve the standard of living. We've just got to hope we can maintain what we've got - or even improve it if possible", said one French respondent from Gueret, central France.

France's countryside, with a population density half the rate of the UK, is often considered somewhere people leave, not a place people retire to with grand plans for renovation.

"The French don’t generally restore old property… so it is left to romantics such as ourselves to buy up these beautiful old properties," said Sara Bowles from britishexpats.com. And yet, bemused as the French are by the droves of expats queuing up to buy crumbling farmhouses, the British are seen to have a positive effect on the countryside.

François Beau, the mayor of Salles Lavauguyon, claimed that the British "have given some life back to these places; they've done up properties which would otherwise have fallen apart."

It seems that much of this debate comes down to how you see the countryside. For expats and city-dwellers, the countryside is an escape from the pressures of the modern world - but perhaps the reality of living out the rural dream comes at a price - the French countryside can be a lonely and isolated place for expats.

But as one Limousin resident said: "Life out in the country is a privilege and it allows you to be less stressed, even if it means you miss out on all the unnecessary superfluous things in life".

It takes time to adapt to the slow pace of life, to see the lack of mod cons as an advantage and to see past what we might call the teething problems expats have in moving to rural France. Life in La France profonde is perhaps neither a rural idyll or backwater hell but basically just what you make of it.

by Amaryllis Barton

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